I hate cliches but sometimes, they apply and you begrudgingly have to admit that there is some wisdom at play. “Never judge a man until you've walked a mile in his shoes.” We’ve all heard it, don’t judge, because you don’t understand, you don’t see. Whether on the street or in a cafe, you are sitting next to someone whose thoughts and memories are completely shielded from you, and in there, contained in that person’s skull, is what they have done, what they have said, who they have hated and ultimately, who they are.
When I was about 20, in university, I met Adam, though he wasn’t Adam back then; not entirely, not yet. Adam* is a man, not in the most traditional sense of the word. He would tell you he is a man, and yet some people - upon hearing his entire story - may not agree. Who decides? Is it him? You? Them? God? Nature?
Adam was born a girl, named Eve*, and raised in the way one would expect for an upper class girl from Cairo. His family, blissfully ignorant to who he was beneath his appearance, went about ascribing him to the female gender as soon as he was born. Yet hidden behind Eve’s soft voice, behind her timid femininity, was a sensitive boy who felt, from a very young age, that something wasn’t right.
It’s no secret that as soon as you are born, you are bombarded with society’s expectations, we are told how to dress, how to speak, how to sit, how to eat and deviations are not tolerated. Several gender theorists - namely Judith Butler and Michel Foucault - have written and conducted extensive research about the nature of gender, and how it can deviate from what (excuse my French) is between our legs.
If you haven’t read much on gender, here’s all you need to know: Butler’s research proved that there is indeed a separation between our sex which is a matter of biology, our gender which is our sexual identity, and our sexual orientation. Meaning that not all of these things need to be aligned, so if you were born with a penis, it doesn’t mean you will for sure be male in the gender you feel you belong to nor does it guarantee that you will only want to have sex with women. These are traditional conceptions of gender, derived from the images we have of nature and from our biological needs to procreate, but the world is over that now, we are at a point where some of us can lead fulfilling lives without having to conform to a standard built upon a goal that is currently harming the Earth: overpopulation.
“I was a tomboy growing up; I had short hair and would avoid wearing dresses, skirts, anything that would be considered exclusive to girls. I wasn’t very aware of the incongruity between my mind and body until puberty hit me and changed my body to look decisively female,” recounts Adam. At puberty, his curves started to develop and Adam hated them, deliberately wearing baggy clothes to hide them, to hide the body that has been the largest incongruity of his identity all his life. In simpler terms, Adam, like everyone else, wanted to be able to look at himself in the mirror and feel proud of his body, feel that it represented who he was inside, but unfortunately for Adam, it didn’t. Despite his best efforts to live in peace, Adam walked around self-conscious, in a body that he could not relate to.
“I distracted myself for a bit, but then I had to face the fact that I was only attracted to women, and for a while, I thought that was the reason why I’d always wanted to be a boy. Believing I was gay was a whole other issue that took me years to accept, but eventually I came to terms with it.”
Going into high school, where people often feel a tremendous amount of peer pressure, Adam didn’t like not fitting in and, for a while, he conditioned his appearance; dressing like a girl, and growing his hair out, resolving to try and live a normal life and, maybe somewhere along the line, he would find his happiness, his place in the world. He grew his hair out and started to wear clothes that fit him, showed his cursed curves off and vowed to really give it a shot.
I met Adam just after that - though I was introduced to him as Eve, when his attempt at being normal had failed and he was beginning to question many of the truths that he had previously accepted as absolute. He had avoided romantic relationships entirely due to lack of attraction towards men, and for the first time in college, he (while still biologically female) started to think maybe I am a lesbian, so he made the decision to try dating a girl and see if he felt more like himself. I remember a great deal of ruckus surrounding 'Eve’s coming out'. Little did we know at the time, that his case was much more complicated than we thought. He started dating a girl during university and we were all very happy for him because he was obviously much happier, much more at ease. He was introduced to other trans men and through his conversations with them, he realised that he was not a lesbian, indeed he was a heterosexual man who had been born into the body of a woman.
Many LGBTQ+ people are often estranged from their parents and families, either because of their family’s rejection of who they are or because they prefer to live away from their families so their 'secret' is not discovered.
“My family and I are very close; that was the hardest part to consider in my decision to transition. I care a lot about what they say and how they feel, so it took me a long time to move forward, since I wanted to give them time to get on board. At first, they kind of dismissed it and said I’ve always been boyish and that’s fine. But then I told them about the girl I was dating and they were very against that and took my gender issue more seriously. I don’t think they understood what exactly could be done and, at that time, I was still uncertain whether I wanted to medically transition or not, so it was a period of plenty of family counselling and research. I felt really bad for putting them through all of this, but I knew that this is what I had to do and kept telling them it wasn’t their fault.”
Five years after he told them, Adam managed to convince them that he needed to undergo the transition because he wasn't going to be himself, he would always be addressed in a way he didn't identify with (as a woman), his feelings would go unacknowledged and, if that was going to be his life, he just didn't think it was worth living. They agreed and he decided he would move abroad to embark on this journey. Though he was on his way to a life where he would be more tolerated, it saddened Adam that his happiness had to be found so far away from home. He regretted that there was no understanding in Egypt and regretted leaving all his friends and loved ones behind. Empathy is a difficult thing, because with empathy, there are no absolutes, everything is excused and contextualised and suddenly things aren’t so black and white.
“I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with Egypt, but now even more so. I had a great childhood there, but as I grew older, it became increasingly difficult to be myself and to function in society. The emphasis the culture places on gender alone and its practices of gender segregation made me feel like an outlaw. The stares and harassment I used to get on the streets by both men and women for looking different really got to me after a while.”
Adam was fortunate enough to be able to leave, many others in Egypt go through hell to be able to live as transgender individuals, very often they are criminalised, ostracised, and denied employment, which only worsens their lives, leaving them helpless. Many transgender individuals in Egypt will become sex workers in order to afford the hormones they need to live as they want to, and while these may change their appearance, their IDs still state the sex they were born with. Try applying for a job with an ID that says you're a female while dressing and behaving like a man, the rejection will most likely be aggressive and spiteful to the highest degree.
Gender is a broad spectrum and societal norms affect even the 'normal' among you, I know my fair share of heterosexual men who don't feel "man enough" and go through tremendous amounts of turmoil because they are simply not what society wants them to be. Similarly, there are heterosexual women who don't feel "feminine" enough and if society just removed gender from the equation, many more people outside the trans community would benefit.
The transformation started with the social transition; Adam had to live as a man for a certain amount of time, during which trans men change their hair, their appearance, the way they talk to try and get a sense of the gender they are transitioning into. Some people stop there and live as the gender they identify with, but most of the time, it’s not enough because society will still perceive you as your birth sex. The next step is hormone therapy, during this phase, trans men take testosterone at a weekly or bi-weekly rate (as gels, creams, injections, or pills). This basically makes them develop all the male secondary sex characteristics over a period of time. The voice drops, the body becomes hairier, they get facial hair, lose fat, gain muscle, and the fat deposits change from hips and thighs to their stomach. Interestingly enough, some trans men report feeling angrier faster, becoming more aggressive the further they get into the hormone therapy. Also, they start to go bald if they have the gene for it.
“I have more energy, feel stronger, and my voice keeps getting deeper. Overall it has made me a lot more confident and comfortable with who I am and I’m able to interact with others more easily.”
The next step is to get top surgery, where the breasts are removed to make a masculine chest. Most trans men stop at that point and consider the transition complete, but others choose to do bottom surgery, which is the process of constructing a penis. It’s not very advanced, however, it’s not the best option out there at this point. So depending on one's comfort level, one can choose what they want to do to align body and mind and have their identity match the way they're are being perceived.
In a population as large as Egypt's, there is most certainly every kind of person imaginable. It's sad that Adam, who has never hurt anyone, was subjected to this degree of rejection simply because of something that doesn't affect people's lives in the slightest, if the sight of Adam offends you, look away, and if looking away is the extent of your suffering, then consider yourself lucky because I can assure you his suffering is much greater than yours. If you're morals can allow you to have a friend who shouts profanities at women in the street for fun, but can't allow you to let someone else live their life in the way they see fit, then you need a serious reality check.